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Top 16 NFC position battles during training camp

  • By Gregg Rosenthal, Marc Sessler, Dan Hanzus and Chris Wesseling
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We broke ground on our top 16 position battles in the AFC on Wednesday. Now it's time for the NFC:

NFC East

New York Giants running back

When Big Blue released its first unofficial depth chart on Thursday, Rashad Jennings was listed above David Wilson as New York's No. 1 back. Jennings was hired to lead the way, but Wilson's medical clearance makes this a fascinating competition. We've never seen Jennings carry the ball more than 163 times in a season, while Wilson is arguably the team's most athletic home-run hitter on offense. Another dark-horse for snaps: Andre Williams. The rookie saw plenty of goal-line work during this week's camp work and "looked good," according to NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah.

Giants middle linebacker

Middle linebacker is another battle to watch in Gotham with starter Jon Beason almost certain to miss all of training camp because of a right foot injury. Beason told SiriusXM NFL Radio he'll be ready for the opener. Jameel McClain -- who dodged an injury scare of his own this week -- has a bead on this lead job if he can stay healthy and fend off rookie Devon Kennard. Recent comments from coach Tom Coughlin suggest the Giants don't have much confidence in veteran Mark Herzlich, but beggars can't be choosers: New York's linebacker group is paper thin.

Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback

I'd be stunned if Matt Barkley beat out Mark Sanchez for the No. 2 job behind Nick Foles, but Chip Kelly does things his own way. As resident Jets fan Dan Hanzus noted on Wednesday's podcast, there's no greater nightmare for Gang Green faithful than the prospect of Chip the Wizard turning Sanchez into a world-beater. We'll be watching closely to see if Eagles coaches can scrub the veteran passer of his technical flaws and poor decision-making while restoring Sanchez's confidence under center.

Dallas Cowboys safety

Jerry Jones has poured too much dough into the cornerback position to give up on Brandon Carr or Morris Claiborne. The real battle comes at safety, where the team would love to see second-year man J.J. Wilcox step up alongside Barry Church. If Wilcox doesn't impress, it's up to Jakar Hamilton to fend off Jeff Heath, who was an on-field nightmare for much of last season.

-- Marc Sessler

NFC North

Green Bay Packers tight end

Jermichael Finley is the key here. If he shows up, he instantly regains his job as the Packers' starting tight end. That remains in doubt, however, as he seeks medical clearance after neck fusion surgery. That leaves a wide open camp battle between third-round pick Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless. A sleeper here is rookie Colt Lyerla, a talented playmaker who dropped off draft boards after a cocaine possession arrest led to his dismissal at Oregon.

Chicago Bears backup quarterback

Marc Trestman is known as the quarterback whisperer, but he's going to have his hands full with the depth chart behind Jay Cutler. Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen enter camp as the primary competitors for the No. 2 job. Don't be surprised if a familiar veteran name enters the battle at some point. Kyle Orton foreshadowing alert!

Detroit Lions tight ends

The Lions selected Eric Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick in May's draft, so expect the former North Carolina star to get every opportunity to make an instant impact as a rookie. The Lions have other options though in the steady Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria, who proved himself to be a sound red-zone target -- and enthusiastic dancer -- in 2014. Ebron reportedly struggled with aspects of the playbook this spring, setting the table for intrigue.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback

Matt Cassel begins camp working with the first team and should have the inside track. Don't count Teddy Bridgewater out, however. He's a first-round pick who's been showered with praise from all corners of the organization in the walk-up to training camp. Bridgewater might not start Week 1, but an impressive summer showing could help ensure he isn't holding a clipboard for long.

-- Dan Hanzus

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons running back

Steven Jackson looked better than his numbers indicate last season, but he could still see his workload decreased this year. Fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman has a chance to have a big role right away. Jacquizz Rodgers also remains in the mix for potential third-down work. The group has potential to be a sneaky-good backfield.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver

Making the Leap



Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014 -- players like running back Khiry Robinson of the New Orleans Saints.

» No. 25: Josh McCown
» No. 24: Xavier Rhodes
» No. 23: Christine Michael
» No. 22: Ziggy Ansah
» No. 21: Justin Hunter
» No. 20: Markus Wheaton
» No. 19: Khiry Robinson
» No. 18: Gus Bradley, David Caldwell
» No. 17: Marvin Jones
» No. 16: Desmond Trufant
» No. 15: Zach Ertz
» No. 14: DeAndre Hopkins
» No. 13: Everson Griffen
» No. 12: Jordan Reed
» No. 11: Datone Jones, Mike Daniels
» No. 10: Jabaal Sheard
» No. 9: Ladarius Green
» No. 8: Toby Gerhart
» No. 7: Montee Ball
» No. 6: Johnathan Cyprien
» No. 5: Jamie Collins
» No. 4: Le'Veon Bell
» No. 3: Andre Ellington
» No. 2: Kenny Vaccaro
» No. 1: Cordarrelle Patterson

The challenge for Panthers wideouts: avoid being a punchline. Jerricho Cotchery is a solid veteran No. 3 role player miscast as a No. 1 option. The team is counting on Kelvin Benjamin to be a starter right away, but that's a lot to ask of a rookie. Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood and Kealoha Pilares are the underwhelming options to be the No. 3 wideout. Look for Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman to continue to look for help on the waiver wire.

New Orleans Saints running back: Khiry Robinson vs. Mark Ingram

We don't list Pierre Thomas, because he's going to have the same Swiss Army knife role that he's had for five years. Travaris Cadet could also get some work as a Darren Sproles-like player in space. Robinson and Ingram are battling to be the team's early-down thumper. When you watch the film, Robinson looks like the first-round pick, not Ingram. We hope Robinson gets a bigger role this year because he's a lot of fun to watch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers slot receiver

This battle is notable because it highlights the thin Buccaneers receiver crew. They are hoping sixth-round pick Robert Herron emerges as a factor. Louis Murphy and Chris Owusu are the other two main candidates for the job. Tampa would be in big trouble if one of their starting wideouts got hurt.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

NFC West

St. Louis Rams running backs: Zac Stacy vs. the field

The Rams have been preaching the competition mantra, but returning starter Zac Stacy is the clear favorite after averaging more than 20 carries per start as a rookie. Coach Jeff Fisher has referred to third-round draft pick Tre Mason as a "change-of-pace" back. Benny Cunningham averaged an impressive 5.55 yards per on 45 carries as Stacy's backup last season. Isaiah Pead finally drew praise over the offseason, but it was primarily for his special teams work.

Rams receivers

It's clearly a wide open race when the annually underwhelming Austin Pettis continues to show as much consistency as anyone in the wide receiver corps. Kenny Britt won the offseason trope award as the faded veteran impressing a new coaching staff. The Rams also took turns hyping Tavon Austin and Brian Quick as the most improved players on offense. Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey shouldn't be overlooked.

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San Francisco 49ers backup running back

Marcus Lattimore is starting camp on the non-football injury list, which leaves rookie Carlos Hyde with a clear edge in the race to overtake Kendall Hunter as Frank Gore's sidekick. NFL Media's Albert Breer reported Thursday that Hyde is on his way to carving out a role on offense after an impressive showing in spring practices.

49ers inside linebacker: Michael Wilhoite vs. Chris Borland for NaVorro Bowman's job

The 49ers will be without the services of the best inside linebacker we saw on Game Rewind last season, as NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss the first half of the season while recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. Michael Wilhoite played with the first team during offseason practices, but he will have a fight on his hands from third-round pick Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

-- Chris Wesseling

The latest "Around The League Podcast" offers up team-by-team training camp previews of the NFC East and NFC West.

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